Sunday, June 29, 2008

Not really a free lunch; being a postdoc means asking for things

Perhaps this is a lesson in who really runs things. I asked my postdoc if I could arrange for a month of gap health insurance, and I would gladly pay for it. They said that they could do that, and pay for it, but it had to be 2 months for admin reasons.

When they were setting up the insurance, the budget director of the research center discovered that there was money in the postdoc fund to start funding me 2 months early, so decided to go ahead and do that --- perhaps it is use it or lose it? And afterwards she and another administrator decided to ask my advisor whether it was okay. Neither heard back from him on the question. Now I have to ask him if he's okay with it, and if he wants me to do anything for the extra funding. As long as he really is okay with it, it's a great deal, though potentially an uncomfortable way to start off. "Do you mind that your budget director decided to give me two months of free money?"

Now I'm asking another favor. There are two campuses: one campus is where my advisor and his mostly-MD colleagues in the research center have offices for the (possibly rare?) occasions when they are actually in their office. The other campus has everything else, including journal clubs, seminars, postdocs and PhD faculty in the same research area, and grad students. I suggested that I work partially with a PhD faculty member at the central campus partly because the work honestly looks interesting, but also because I want the excuse to be at the main campus. Currently I'm slated to have a normal set-up in the distant campus, whatever that is: cubicle, half an office, etc. In the main campus, I'm slated to have a desk in a room with 17 other people, mostly RAs. So I have to ask for a half office there as well.

The administrator is fantastic on these issues: she was coaching me on how to ask for the extra space because she agrees that postdocs are horribly isolated and they should be around as many other people as possible. Honestly, I want to be at the main campus because it seems more fun and is easier to get to, so I keep reminding myself that I have legitimate academic reasons to be at the main campus, so I shouldn't feel hesitant about asking.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Last interview of the year

I had my last interview of the year in mid-June.

The department was founded about a decade ago, but as of a few years ago there was exactly one faculty member left in the department. It's a field with an obvious non-academic set of careers, and the chair had left, and while they were working to replace the former chair, they appointed an 80 year old interim chair, and didn't want to hire new faculty, but they didn't appoint a new chair for several years. Meanwhile all but one of the other faculty left and were not replaced. And this department still had hundreds of students which somehow continued to be taught.

Now there is a full contingent of faculty, mostly non-tenure-track but relatively senior, and the recent years of turmoil have succeeded in decreasing the number of students by 30%, which they see as fortunate under the circumstances. This year they are making several tenure-track hires, which they've been interviewing feverishly for. The delays were due to delays in the central administration's approval of the hires.

More new postdoc gratitude: free money

My new postdoc advisor decided to set my start date me 2 months before he asked me to start working, so as far as I can tell, I get two free months of salary, effectively a 20% signing bonus (as it were.) I had been worrying about how I was going to cover all my moving expenses since the postdoc does not reimburse moving, but this does it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

NIH stipend levels frozen

I've noticed that NIH stipend levels have not increased for years. Does anyone know whether anyone is organizing a protest of this? It seems ridiculous, especially given the recent inflation in energy and food costs.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Moving practicalities

I'm planning my move for this summer, and finding a few things very helpful so want to pass them on in case anyone else does:

- has reviews of different moving options. The site's somewhat unfortunate name came about because someone had their belongings ransomed by moving companies, and when they started looking into the consumer issues, they found many moving companies gave low estimates and then raised them once the move was in progress and it was too late for the customer to back out. One story that I read there had a woman actually decide to forfeit her belongings rather than pay the several thousand dollars that the moving company requested from her.

They recommend a very small number of services --- full service, cargo shipping/partial trailer, relocubes, and self-driven moving vans --- and their motto seems to be "if you want it done right, do it yourself." From reading their stories, I understand this perspective.

- ABF UPack has been consistently friendly and helpful in all of my planning for different moving scenarios: they email quotes right away almost all the time and show which days are cheaper, and if you call they will tell you the price difference between different days. The other relocube places are less responsive and the people I spoke with seem more like salespeople. Upack customer service people haven't tried to pressure me at all, and they answered all my questions and explained the options, and all five of the people I've spoken with in the past two years at their depot terminals and customer service were just extremely friendly and helpful. Moving isn't their main business --- they're a cargo shipper --- so that may explain the difference from the other places. (I tried to use them for my move last year, but due to parking regulations in my current city, I wasn't able to.)

Also they gave me a $50 discount for mentioning the above website when I called them after making my reservation. I had thought that mentioning the website gave the website some funding for referrals, and hadn't expected a discount, but it turns out that it gives a discount.

Paths not taken

The guy I almost married's wedding is coming up soon. We had dated for 3-5 years, picked locations where we could both get good jobs and I helped him choose his internship, and we started to plan a wedding. He shopped for engagement rings and checked out books from the library on how to plan a wedding. We chose a date during the week of our anniversary. When our favorite vineyard closed (I'm not the kind of person to have a favorite vineyard, so it's that good), I bought a bottle of wine for when we got engaged. But then out of simultaneous sanity and insanity, I broke up with him.

(When it's over, it's over, so it doesn't much matter who broke up with whom. Except I feel the need to add that for what follows. In one of the few conversations I had with Michael recently, he expressed surprise that I was the one who broke up with the guy I almost married. Do I really seem so desperate?)

He got a permanent job exactly where we were going to be together and their wedding date is the day we had chosen, the week of our anniversary. After months and months of not thinking about him at all, now that I know he is getting married I keep thinking about him, especially given their wedding date. I suppose because it's a little bit like a death: we used to speak a few times a year, and now the expectation seems to be that I can't talk to him again after he was such a big part of my life. He has been dating this woman for 1.5-2 years, and asked me to get back together 6, 4, and 3 months before their engagement. He only told me difficult things about her, such as her fairly debilitating mental illness and the fact that he scared himself how angry he would get with her since she looked up to him so much. When I asked him if he loved her 4 months before their engagement, he hesitated and said how grateful he is to her for being so supportive. Of course he might be reticent to say good things about her to me, but it's so hard to hide being in love even if you try. I couldn't hide my feelings for the person I'm in love with.

The whole business concerned me and I'd been thinking about it more, so I called him up. I thought he could find a woman he could have a more equal relationship with. Our relationship had been imbalanced, and his relationship seemed imbalanced the other way. He proceeded to give a list of ways in which she was better than I was. Ouch. Though mostly they were things she was doing for him, which underlines the issue of equality. Not my problem. Not my problem. Not my problem.

Women who are less attached to their careers really do have an easier time finding relationships.

Part of me thinks that I gave up my only opportunity to have a solid relationship. Definitely I gave up my only chance to get married while young, and so it was that I ended up plunging back into the world of older dating, with all its inequalities and stereotype reinforcement.

I wish I could say that I didn't regret anything or that I couldn't have acted differently than I did, but the reality is that I could have.

I can say that breaking up with him allowed me to find a relationship of equals where there's palpable love and affection in even criticism, and somehow the things that would drive me up the wall with someone else just don't bother me, and I have a hard time staying angry with him, even when he made me furious, and we're secure in the other's love. Though we live a few time zones apart and he doesn't want kids and isn't even sure whether he wants to marry anyone, and he just broke up with me. He's still my best friend. And I'm his, though that's more by default.

I am very grateful: some people never find love in their whole lives, and I've found love several times. Rising expectations from near misses are still frustrating.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Industry interview, continued.

A large profitable company tried to recruit me, and flew me out at the end of February. During the phone screens, they told me about one division which actually lines up very well with my academic work, and I said I would be interested in interviewing with that division. They brought me to interview for another division that I'd said I wasn't so interested in, but which produces most of the company's revenue stream, so they're concentrating hiring in.

The company is well-known for being secretive, so the interviews consisted of them saying, "This division is called X Y [i.e., two words]; what do you think we do, and how should we do it?" I learned almost nothing about the company, other than what I could observe, so it was hard to answer the question, "Do you think you would be interested in what we do here?"

I learned more about the company from a NYT article than I did during my entire interview, but the NYT article came out after my interview. Given the lack of information, I suppose that most people who interview just drink the kool-aid, while I found the kool-aid factor extremely disturbing.

We had a couple of phone calls and exchanged some emails after the interview, and I repeated that I might be interested in the other division, but not the one they brought me to interview for. The recruiter said she would look into it, and I naturally never heard back from her.

Now, in mid-June, I get the following email from the company's recruiter:

I hope all is well with you. I wanted to write to follow up and see what you had decided to do regarding the academic offers you were looking into. I take it that since I have not heard from you, you made a decision to accept one of those. I wanted to be able to make the lines of communication open and thought i'd check in!

Hope all is well, looking forwrad to hearing back from you.
Kind regards,

My impulse is to say, "I couldn't consider offers that I didn't receive, so I accepted one of the offers that I did receive." But that's not helpful.

I am guessing that they are having trouble recruiting for this new division. This company is popular among new college graduates, but PhDs are a harder sell especially since it's solely a question of making more money, rather than solving intrinsically interesting problems that the company likes to tout.

So I settled for:

Thanks for your follow up. The last I recalled of our contact, you told me in late March that you would look into the positions that you had available that would be a good match for me. I didn't hear back from you, so I assumed that there was not a match and I accepted one of the offers that I received. I'll be a postdoc at Z in September. On your end, what's going on?

I would still consider a job in the relevant division, especially since it's not located in Kool-Aid Central.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Protecting time: game theory

My father's former student is a year older than me, and a tenure-track at the university where I'll be going next year, but in my current city for a summer fellowship. My father suggested that he ask her to join our family at an evening meal, but I wanted to meet her alone since I thought it would be awkward otherwise. I wrote to see if she wanted to have a friendly coffee and didn't see the need to specify that I was proposing evenings specifically. She wrote back asking me to meet near her office on a Friday morning at 9 am.

I never know how to answer this type of email other than wishing my original email had been more explicit because anything I say after that feels uncooperative. But it's pretty nervey of her to treat me like a student seeking an appointment with a professor when I'm a peer looking for social and living advice. In theory, of course I could meet her at the time and place she requested, but it would take an extra hour beyond the time we're actually at coffee and would suck up most of my working morning.

After laboring over an email response for at least 10 minutes, I settled on saying that I'm already at work at 9 am, but letting her determine the place (near her office) and asking for times when I'll be in the area anyhow. Though for all I know she's not at her normal office every day, and we'll end up playing email tag trying to line up times.

It's such a small issue, but all of the moves in scheduling in order to protect the most time feels like a game theory problem. It seems unfair to try to determine too many of the details, but that's what she did right when I wrote. I suppose that is what those who are best at this game do: determine all the details if they don't care all that much about whether the meeting takes place.

Clarification: One of the reasons I posted this is because I think it's interesting to see how faculty develop ways of protecting their time, and this is one illustration of that.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Divorce: the cycle continues

My first year of grad school, I met this college senior Bob. He got engaged to Alice at the end of the year, and went abroad the next year. His fiancee Alice finished her MA while planning their wedding. Alice got tired of planning the wedding alone and felt Bob wasn't taking on his part of the planning, so decided to wait with the rest of it until they were together. At mid-year Alice finished her MA and came to the foreign country and stayed with Bob. Alice said she had no hints that anything was different until a few weeks into her stay when Bob's classmates pitied her and told her that he had been openly dating his female roommate Carol before her arrival. Alice returned to the US the next day.

At the end of that year, I got a wedding invitation, and was surprised to find the wrong bride's name on it: I'd never heard of Carol and I didn't even really know Alice, but felt weird about the suddenness. Less than a year earlier, Bob was publicly declaring his undying love for Alice at his farewell dinner, and now was marrying Carol.

At Bob and Carol's wedding, my boyfriend and I happened to sit next to his ex-fiancee Alice and comforted her. Alice told the above story, and also said that Bob's father had cheated on both his mother and I think also step-mother. In retrospect, Alice said, she should have suspected that he might cheat. She pointed out Bob's father, who was indeed with an evidently younger woman. Clearly it was a mistake for her to accept his invitation to the wedding, and she said she regretted going, though on the bright side, Alice and I became friends. After hearing this, I assiduously avoided Bob, though he was living in another city so I suppose it wasn't super obvious. I wasn't surprised when he would come on visits without his wife Carol, took a summer internship in another city without her, and most recently spend a year abroad without her. For the last, Bob and Carol both changed their facebook statuses from "married" to "complicated" and, at the end of the academic year, to "single."

The ex-fiancee Alice, in the meantime, having never before been interested in women in her 30+ year life (she was several years older than he was), became interested in women and brought the proverbial U-haul on her second date with the first woman she ever went on a date with. They're now happily partnered with two endearing cats, and I think they plan to get pregnant.

I saw Bob was coming to our former town, where I happened to be for graduation. I'd felt slightly guilty about having avoided him for so many years, I made a point to call him as soon as I landed to find times when we could meet up. He sounded super happy to hear from me; it turned out that this happened precisely during a break in the divorce proceedings. (Apparently the etiquette is to change facebook status when one gets the appointment for divorce proceedings.)

When we ran into each other the first time, Bob stood about 6" away from me, and I kept having to back up to maintain personal space. And again the second time. Granted it'd been a year since his separation, but it was less than a few days after his divorce. Geez. (I managed to turn off his interest in me through some combination of asking him whether a classmate of his was still single and talking about other men.)

Meanwhile two separate friends of mine get interested in him, even after knowing the story. Both apologize for him, "I would need to know what his side is." and "I'm sure that it was a misunderstanding."

Bob's side, it turns out, is contradictory: they broke up, but may have miscommunicated on that point; Alice had come to visit him just as a friend, and they made clear to each other that she should only visit as a friend. Was there a miscommunication, and Alice wasn't aware that they were broken up, or was there good communication, and Alice was visiting only as a friend? In theory, it's verifiable which side is right. In any case, he may have been not doing anything strictly wrong, but still been a jerk. For instance, they may have had issues and she visited in spite of the issues, and when she visited he took advantage of the opportunity to sleep with her and otherwise make it seem as though they were in a relationship, while never intending to continue a relationship with her. Meanwhile, Carol must have felt awful that her boyfriend/roommate was sleeping with his visiting ex-fiancee while she was in town.

One of my friends acknowledged, "I realize that there's no way that he would have been such a catch in college. Now, though, I'm looking for different things." Yeah, he's an almost 6 foot tall smooth-talking intellectual bad-boy elite college alum who is good at initiating relationships. This guy with an indisputably checkered history is attracting these women against all reason --- two in a day! --- and he can repeat the cycle as much as he wants.

More stragglers: are they insane?

I interviewed for this postdoc in the first half of April at a mid-ranked, well-funded school in a good location. I emailed with them as I was about to accept the postdoc that I accepted, and they said they would get back to me that Friday. They didn't. I didn't push it, especially since they had reason to turn me down.

More than two months later, on June 13 after 8 pm, I get the following email:

Our training committee (re postdocs and predocs) was just able to meet since so many things have been happening around here lately. I was wondering what your current status is. Have you accepted a position somewhere?

What is wrong with them?

Update: I got an email that was accidentally meant to be sent by the faculty member running the research center to the administrator:

I think that is for the best. I didn't call her after that meeting because we still hadn't decided and had a lot of questions. So let's look at someone who has a definite fit. Ideas from recent applicants?

Followed shortly by a retraction:

Hi New Postdoc. I just noticed that my reply to [the administrator] got sent to you instead. That's okay. I wish you the very best. The note to [the administrator] was about searching for candidates with a more specific [subject area] focus, since that is what the training grant requires.